Automating the Digital Universe

22 Feb 2021
HeaDSpin team

HeadSpin proudly presents Converge: a show about experience, resilience, inclusion, and acceleration in the digital space.

Bahiyah Yasmeen Robinson, Founder and CEO of VC Include, is a recognized innovator of new avenues for VC and Impact investment.

Her expertise in leading technology, investment and social impact initiatives since the early 2000s culminated in creating VC Include in 2018 to build platforms and programs for diverse emerging managers globally. With just 1% of the $70 trillion of assets in the U.S. managed by diverse asset managers, VC Include meets this market opportunity by building an ecosystem of women, Black, Latinx, Indigenous and LGBTQ+ fund managers in alternative investments.

Robinson’s work has been recognized by The Stanford University Social Innovation Review, Crunchbase, Entrepreneur, Social Venture Circle, CNN, Forbes, and more.

Bahiyah Yasmeen Robinson has made it her mission to help underrepresented founders connect with investors in the community. As Founder and CEO of VC Include, she is a recognized innovator of new avenues for VC and Impact investment. In this episode, Bahiyah, while drawing from her experiences around investment and inclusion, talks about digital inclusion, our “why”, and how digital inclusion can be embedded into community and culture. Recorded live from our two-day virtual event Converge in April 2021.

You can also read on for the full session, or watch the panel recording below to hear these five automation experts’ insights.


Bahiyah: Welcome everyone. It’s such a pleasure to be with you. I am Bahiyah Yasmeen Robinson, founder and CEO of VC include, and the keynote today is we’re talking about digital inclusion, which is such a wildly, wide term that I think a lot of us in the tech space don’t really have a clear handle on, I’ve been thinking about this term for a very long time. My work is centered around in a lot of different ways, and I’ll say that, I’m going to start with a few stories, because I think that the road to inclusion is very personal, and it’s a personal for all of us. I would ask you, as I kind of tell you my story and share some examples and advice to ask you: what’s your why? Because I think that is really one of the core, you know, components to figuring out how digital inclusion can be, you know, embedded into community and to culture, etc.

So the what’s your why is actually a really, you know, it’s a question that we all need to ask ourselves. I knew that my why kind of early and really actually in junior high was I wanted to figure out a way how to be a bridge builder. That actually translated into originally wanting to get into going into foreign service. I got my degree in International Relations and really be of service in terms of building bridges on an international level. But to take a step back, a lot of this is also about kind of how we were either raised and how that either influenced us to be who we are today, or maybe gave us some points of how not to be, right? For some of us i’s one way. For other ways, it’s the other.

For me, my you know, my dad, part of my story is about my father. My dad was an orphan. He was born in Harlem Hospital in 1938. Black man, no parents, and figured out how to get a degree — actually a PhD in Physics from Stanford University. I believe he was the first black man to do that. So that kind of question — he passed away in 2007 — but that kind of nagging question of how do you get there from there, right? How do you like have no parents, no internet, right? No digital native experience, and then kind of dream yourself and leapfrog yourself into this new reality. And so that is part of my kind of DNA, and when I get low, I kind of think about, well, if he can do something like that, then I can kind of do anything. I think it’s important to have those kind of examples in your life even if they’re not your parents.

On my grandmother’s side, she was one of the first black woman to get a master’s degree, and it was not because of anything but the war. It was 1941 when she graduated with her undergrad degree, and because of the war, she had a degree in Home Ec, which was a thing back then. They needed to have folks that could create nylon for parachutes for the war. Luckily, the war ended right after she got her degree, her master’s degree, and so she didn’t have to kind of go to war and do that work, but it allowed her to, again, leapfrog into the position to bring her family and migrate from Texas to California.

So on both sides of my family there were these kind of moments. I think for every person of color, every immigrant, even most of our families, we have those folks too, that we can look at in our past that have leapfrogged certain moments. That was really part of my fallback and part of my genetics and my DNA in terms of my journey. But as I realized that from a very high level, my why was to be a bridge builder. My father was a scientist. I was a coder actually in junior high. I went to a school called compu tech and started coding early, but I really became an entrepreneur. I was a creative and an entrepreneur. I started my first business out of high school with my high school best friend, and we were importing textiles from Tanzania just right into college and did it for the summer and really were creative with our entrepreneurial endeavors.

So I decided not to go the kind of Foreign Service route, because I had this kind of tech/entrepreneurship background and really wanted to explore: how do you really combine these things? How do you use your own skill set and provide opportunities for others, but really by being an example in in the world in the spaces in which you want to walk and you want to grow?

So in my 20s, after graduating from college, I dabbled in a number of different businesses. I was a business manager for kind of a high net worth investor that was a media executive. So this was right around the time where the digital universe was embarking, or was interred intersecting like what the Napsters and Googles and everything was going digital. I was seeing that turn, as I was kind of walking in my 20s and try to figure out like, what does this mean, and who am I and what’s the title, right?

I got to my mid 20s and realized that I wanted to still stay connected to community and really figure out how to build these networks around entrepreneurship. I realized kind of through my dad and the kind of physics brain that I was really thinking about this kind of mesh network effect like how do you create efficiencies for scale? How do you do that within entrepreneurship, and how do you do that within entrepreneurship in a way that is going to continue to evolve but also be meaningful in this new digital reality? A lot of really hard questions that I did not know the answer to.

But I was willing to kind of lock in that space and trip up and fall a little bit and kind of, you know, discover, because I was really committed to being an innovator and being an entrepreneur, and a lot of entrepreneurship is based in failure. We kind of know this, right? Even if you’re a product manager and a tester, there’s a lot of things that you’re doing in the R&D phase that’s failing forward in a lot of ways. We talked about that in entrepreneurship, but I think that’s also very prevalent in the science and the product management world, and product management and product design.

As I was going through that process, I realized a couple of things after working at the Council on Foreign Relations, which was the last real kind of job that I had, I realized how important building communities of influencers and of folks that really had an interest, one in a particular area of expertise, and to share that knowledge in a way that you can, you know, build in that case, it was policy, but build solutions that could affect at scale. That’s kind of what I got from the Council on Foreign Relations, and I took that. I took that into the next iteration of being an entrepreneur, which was really focusing on emerging markets and focusing on Africa.

So snapshot: it was 2008 now. The financial crisis had just hit. Right before the financial crisis hit, I had left that Council on Foreign Relations — cushy job — to become what an entrepreneur again. So I was in this juggernaut, where I was like, holy crap, you know the other word, I don’t know what’s going to happen, you know, the financial crisis hit New York City really hard. A lot of my clients at the time were in the financial industry. So my business went from this to this.

I had some money saved. I went to Brazil. I kind of did some social entrepreneurship work, but I was running out of capital as a first generation wealth creator and I said I’m at this at this line, and I realized sometimes the innovations that you’re looking for happen in your lowest times, because I shifted and I pivoted a bit. One is that I knew that there was a lot of opportunity for innovation in emerging markets. Obviously, you know, we were in a depression in the US, so I started kind of poking around.

When I landed in Africa — and I already had a connection with the continent through the work that I had done previously as well as through some of the connections that I’d built over the last 10 years — I realized that there was a groundswell of innovation happening in Africa that was untapped. So I went to work for as a senior consultant to a large NGO, which really was focusing on digital inclusion and finding social entrepreneurs on the ground across the continent. So it was a whole new, incredibly open opportunity for me to kind of build some of the things and test some of the things that I wanted to potentially build on. Ride the kind of wave I saw wave happening. For the first time, I was on the front end of it which was really exciting to me.

So this innovation concept — for two and a half years, I built public private partnerships with, some of you guys are probably here at Google. Google was an early investor and to some early entrepreneurs on the continent, you know, Facebook, Gates Foundation, Microsoft, Omidyar Network, which is more on the investment side, all the Exxon Mobil, they all kind of came to start to kind of test the waters. So I was part of that testing. It was super exciting, and I was like Oh my God. Once the African continent gets digitally connected, this is gonna there’s gonna be a groundswell similar to what was happening in India already and other emerging markets.

I was super excited to be in that space. In just a few short years later, because I was thinking about not just the innovation in my own why, but how to build connectivity at scale, not just in the digital kind of infrastructure way, but in terms of people, because this is very personal. Digital inclusion is very personal. It is about scale, but it kind of starts with the individual. So I wanted to be able to influence connectivity, and so what did that mean? From this mesh network brain of mine, I thought about the end result and try to work my way back, which was, if we were going to build infrastructure for digital inclusion across the continent, we also needed to invest in the continent. We need to invest in local entrepreneurs. If we needed to do that, then we needed to create this network effect across the continent — because it’s a huge continent, right 55 countries — across the continent and try to figure out how to do that.

So the other thing that’s really important is partnership. We found partners that were already on the continent again — you know, the Googles and Microsoft’s, etc, the AWS and Amazon’s — and really started to kind of convene them — the Nokia’s, etc, some of the mobile phone companies, along with government partnerships. I had been given at that point capital to invest in early stage entrepreneurs and startups. So we not just invested, but we also built like the first tech pitch competition on the continent. We started the first tech hubs on the continent. We didn’t just start with, you know, Kenya, Uganda, and Cameroon, etc. and Senegal. We also built a lot of hub of network, so a lab of labs, right, so that there could be learnings and that type of kind of inclusive, peer learning, and information sharing across different regions.

That was really important because what I realized that I became an ecosystem builder, and that word comes up a lot I think now, but it’s really really important, because all it means is that people with clear whys and clarity around advancing digital inclusion at scale are all connecting with one another and building out their individual things, but also connecting to other similar projects, programs and people that are both influencing their work but also advancing it at the same time. So that’s the acceleration point.

So we got to a point — uh-oh, this is my 11 minutes in — so in fast forwarding, I was able to take that ecosystem approach and start to think about it differently in terms of a more global scenario. So as much as building the infrastructure of founders on the ground was important, I realized that that wasn’t getting to access to capital at scale. That’s really what my why was. I realized in that process my why was amplifying and accelerating investment into historically underrepresented and new founders at scale. Again, that scale pieces really is really important because I had to think about the problem differently. S that ecosystem approach I took to the founder level, I basically thought about it at the next level. If we’re talking about investment and access to capital, there needs to be innovation and evolution at the asset manager or the VC level at the investment level and the allocator level, which is the LPs and all the folks that invest in the VCs that that invest in the founders, because that was what was going to end was going to scale investment on the ground. I hope that makes sense. It was a very replicable model that I’ve kind of continued to build on as an ecosystem builder.

In terms of examples and advice of like how does that really relate to what’s happening now in digital inclusion in the tech space. It looks like a few things. So back to those big partners, right — a lot of you guys are working for, the Amazons, and the PayPals, and the Googles — there were early programs that they built and grew and they continue to grow. We have Facebook and elevate program. We’ve got Airbnb, focus on Latin America, and Africa. We’ve got Microsoft. We’ve got PayPal and Google and Apple investing in the VCs, the underrepresented VCs, that are then investing in founders at scale. And that’s actually trickling down to new product innovation and new consumer and data on consumer behavior that’s going to be really important in building the next generation of inclusive products and programs in this new digital reality.

I will pause there. A lot more than I can share with you, but I hope that this was a very inspiring kind of story to make you think about your why and where you can really think about where is your commitment, where’s the courage and the compassion that leads to clarity around being inclusive around technology and providing opportunity for certain people that might not look like you, might not think like you, and for historically underrepresented groups that we know are pretty much the minority in a lot of the big tech companies. I will pause there.

Shuchi: Hello! Hi Bahia. Great to see you and thank you so much for how you show up in this world. It’s amazing. Your inspiring story, and thank you for sharing a part of you and your personal story. It’s amazing to see how our experiences shape us. So, thanks again. For the audience, make sure to chime in with your questions in the question box as we’re having the conversation.

I would really like to start by kind of acknowledging the powerful and historic day that was yesterday. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. So the moral arc of the universe bent towards justice, finally. So there are still a lot of work to be done. But I would love to kind of hear your thoughts on how do you feel? It gives me chills, just as I’m talking about it.

Bahiyah: I’m getting chills too. I mean, I hate that. I think there’s two things, and I don’t know how much this has resonated, you know, in media, etc. I actually kind of turn it off, because for me as a black woman, and you know, America and in the world and living that experience all my life every day, this is, you know, a moment of justice, but as thousands of in justices, you know. So, on one hand, it’s like, thank God. Finally. There’s one example of justice, but it’s also a sadness for all the other mothers that have lost their sons and their daughters to, you know, and even within minutes actually of that verdict. There was a young 15-year-old, young black girl — she could have been my daughter — that were gunned down by a police man. I mean, 15 years old. What was she doing to be gunned down by a policeman?

So there’s thousands of these stories, and a historic kind of trauma and relevance that, I mean, I’ve done a lot of work, personal work to meditate and to try to levitate in some ways out of it, but it stays with you. It’s kind of embedded because you see your mom’s and your aunties really affected, and we’re all as a community. Hopefully, at some point, as humanity will be affected. I think in this time, in this last year of in the pandemic, I think that a lot have awakened and have kind of been compassionate and felt that empathy of wow. Again and again and again. To touch on that, I appreciate you acknowledging it. It’s something unfortunately we live pretty much every day, and so it’s really tough, you know. I’s really, really, really tough.

Shuchi: Yeah. So no, thank you for sharing your thoughts on that. Back to the topic of diversity and inclusion, they’re sometimes I feel like used interchangeably. So it’s all lumped together: Diversity and Inclusion. They’re very separate. So how would you — I know you touched upon it during your talk — but how would you separate the two? Diversity is easy to measure. It’s just numbers, right? But how do you quantify inclusion?

Bahiyah: Yeah, I mean, I think, you know, metrics matter, you know, for baseline, but I think diversity is reality and inclusion is an action, right? You can say there’s this number of, you know, black women or black men or Indian or South Asian or Asian, you know, you can kind of look at that. That doesn’t take into account the diversity of thought within those groups — the kind of bigger diversity, because I think that’s where we get stuck on sometimes with diversity is that no one community is a monolith. So when you start to say, we have 4% Asian and 1% black, and you know, 10% this, it’s like, and particularly for majority populations that are like, well, wait a minute — we have a lived experience that might look in some ways similar, maybe not always, to a black person, we’ve grown up and underrepresented are low and moderate income environment, right?

So it becomes this challenge when you start talking about diversity — I believe this is my personal and lived as a practitioner experience — that diversity is really hard to talk about in terms of movement forward outside of just saying there’s a inclusion of all these different groups, but it doesn’t really speak to true diversity, and particularly if you’re talking about technology, to diversity of faces and colors, and these other things that affect the way that we interact with technology.

Inclusion is action, right? So inclusion to me is how are you kind of consciously, right, including others? That’s a different conversation, and it’s a different approach. It’s not doing a survey and saying: What are you, right, like, how do you identify? It’s more saying, you know what, there are five spots open in this new program, and I think that maybe the the woman that might not be the star of the old team, we should give her a chance to be included in that new at least pool of candidates, but even included in the actual final selection and give her a chance. Even if she fails, right, we’re creating a way for her to learn and fail and potentially pay it forward. So inclusion is more of an action to me than diversity. You can’t do diversity. Diversity is just numbers.

Shuchi: Yes, exactly. There’s one thing that I came across that kind of resonated, which is by I’m sure you’ve heard of it, but Verna Myers, she says “Diversity is being invited to the party, and Inclusion is being asked to dance.” So it’s like how are you including people in the decision making a seat at the table? So yeah, no, thank you.

Another topic that I wanted to touch upon, and I see there are some questions that have come in the chat, so I’m going to take that as well. How do you think — people think that they don’t — but there’s a lot of unconscious bias. Right? So I’d love for you. Yeah, to get your thoughts and how can you kind of catch yourself if you will?

Bahiiyah: That’s it. We all have unconscious bias. So it’s like the thing about diversity. It’s like, you’re not diverse, I’m diverse, you know. It’s like, everyone’s diverse in certain ways. We all have privilege. I have privilege. I’ve been educated, right? I’ve had access to certain things, maybe not as much access to capital (we’re changing that,) but you know, there’s other privileges I that I’ve had. We all have some level of unconscious bias.

I mean, back to the why. I mean I think for folks that want to be and strive to be self aware, you know, it’s a tough thing to catch yourself and to say you know what maybe your friend that you know is again on the team and you think is the best person for the job. Well, why not that a woman of color or even woman, you know, when you look at manuals, you know, the new word now you kind of see anything that has only one type of person, you know, in environments that may be questioning, you know, has anybody brought it up that these is all, you know, panels of finance people, and they’re all white guys, I mean, is that what the, you know, that what the country represents? Is that what our communities represent?

Even if you’re part of that community, still saying you know, what, I know a white guy, but I mean, maybe we can bring in, you know, someone else, Erica, or you know, whomever to kind of, you know, add some additional depth to this conversation. And again, it could be about a number of things. But I think unconscious bias is again, unconscious. So it’s kind of can be tough to bring it to a level of consciousness. But, you know, I think, again, some of this time and during COVID and even hopefully, the times that we continue to create for ourselves that are not run, run, run, and don’t have any time for self reflection. It requires self reflection. It requires taking a step back and saying, Have I looked at this thing fully? Have I been inclusive?

If you ask yourself that question, like you ask yourself that why parts, you start to bump up against the sometimes uncomfortable things? Like, damn, I missed that? Oh, wow, I, you know, I didn’t wow, there was like four panels, I didn’t even notice that it was just like, I you know, I didn’t even have, you know. So, it takes that type of reflection, I think, to start to break down unconscious bias, but it’s one of those things that like growing older and evolution never stopped and never stop. So we have to do the best we can and work together, and have some accountability partners, even to say, hey, did I miss that?

Shuchi: I think accountability. Yeah, for sure, is key. You are also focused on impact investing, right? Impact is a term, at least, like a few years ago, it would be nonprofit work, right? But now it’s become mainstream. It’s important to be mission-driven for a lot of companies, right? So how do you look at impact? Would love to kind of hear your thoughts on this.

Bahiyah: So giving you the past past experiences, you know, obviously, that was all impact work, right? The innovation and creating this ecosystem, all that was considered kind of nonprofit-y, do-good-er, you know, impact, but then people started making investments. Then the investment started taking off, and then some of the world in Africa started raising 30, 40, 50 million, and then so then it was like, okay, now it’s like for profit, right? There was a lot. I was right in the middle of that impact evolution, which impact went from again the nonprofit side, you can’t make money doing impact to like, oh wait, you can make money doing impact.

Now we’re at this point where it’s less of impact investing as a dirty word, it’s like there’s two types of impact in the world period, whether it’s investments or in anything else — positive or negative. So are you making a positive impact or negative impact on communities and on investors and on founders and even managers. The other thing I’ll say for those of the investment space in this audience, is that impact has now been also institutionalized. It’s now called ESG. So it’s environment, social governance, which is a litte bit bumpy, because it started out as environmental or climate, and then they’re like, wait, but there’s still no women or people of color in climate work. So now we need to be inclusive and have the S part. So it’s environmental and social. A lot of this impact investing, although, family offices and other investors that have been doing impact work for a long time, still kind of say we’re impact investors. A lot of the bigger investors, larger investors, really talk more about ESG because it’s more of a life profit term than impact.

Shuchi: Sure. No, yeah. I love this shift of mindset that it’s possible to do well and do good at the same time. So that’s amazing. Well, I can go on with my questions, but I want to make sure they get some audience questions in as well. Let’s see. What are some ways tech companies today can become more inclusive or lift underrepresented groups?

Bahiyah: Yeah, I just really quickly brushed upon some of the tech, larger tech companies. This is a scale issue. So the more that larger technology companies, you know, both invest and empower under historically underrepresented groups — whether it’s through and there needs to be a balance, and we at VC Include kind of talk about this and we do a lot of this work, so it’s a combination of training and education. But it’s also about investment and actually putting dollars to work right, and actually saying, here’s a pool of capital for a founder to do that R&D stuff, because we know for sure is that the average white male gets about $1.3 million of capital to play with for an idea, whereas a woman gets about $36,000 and a black woman, you know, well, I mean, you know, maybe you get $1.

So back to kind of metrics, having those diversity metrics can be important, cause you’re like, okay, .00 percent of black women even get access to capital, point less than point 2%, you know, women of any color get access to capital. So I think there’s frankly a big move over this last year since George Floyd’s death and awakening tech companies at the highest level, right, because it can’t just be a product manager saying this, I mean, it has to be from the top down, because that’s where the the checks get written and the budgets get approved.

For folks here that are there in positions of power that have budgets, it’s how can you responsibly but inclusively extend the runway to under historically underrepresented groups? What does that look like? I mean, there’s a lot of different ways that that can happen. But, you know, I think it still needs to connect to that why. You have to feel like there is a there there, there is an opportunity to grow business, to grow access, to sell more. I mean, there’s consumers that are purchasing these products and services and are not being served, right? They’re underserved in a lot of ways, but technology is not serving them 100% either. It’s not just inclusion for inclusion sake, it’s inclusion to open up markets and opportunities for new customers and new consumers in this new digital world.

Shuchi: That’s amazing. Thank you. That was a question from Sharon, and I think we have time for one more question before we need to wrap up. Manish says very inspiring Bahiyah. Could you give us a couple of ongoing examples where VC Include is getting entrepreneurs in Africa access to technology partners and investing capital from North America.

Bahiyah: For the Africa side, so I did kind of move back into the US, although we’ve been pretty Pan-African, but US-based mostly with VC Include. So VC include, again, is really empowering VCs and impact investors that happen to be from own these VC firms, these firms from underrepresented groups, and disrupting and providing capital to them so that they can invest in founders at scale. We are starting though very excitingly, probably Q4 to Q1, Africa emerging manager program, which just means that Africa, VC and impact fund manager program so that will allow us to kind of scale some capital on the continent.

On the North America and even Europe perspective, we have a fellowship, emerging manager program now with 15 funds that represents half a billion dollars in target investment capital. They are going through a nine month program to again, most of them invest in predominantly historically underrepresented groups across the nation. So there’s funds from Nashville, Atlanta, Denver, San Francisco, LA, DC, New York, and Miami, so it’s a very nationally diverse group of underrepresented fund managers. But we are global in nature. We’ve got a climate funds program on our nonprofit side, and then we’re also raising our own vehicle to invest in a lot of the managers that we see that are really doing some fantastic deals around technology and infrastructure investments. Wonderful.

Shuchi: Well, thank you again. As much as I’d love to continue our conversation, our time’s up. So thank you so much for everything that you do. Yeah

Bahiyah: Thank you all. Appreciate you.

Shuchi: Thanks for being here. Bye

Bahiyah: Bye.